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A Conversation with John Duncan: Prologue

Related Post: A Conversation with John Duncan_Part Two

It was Nietzsche who predicted the arts and sciences would merge into a single practice capable of opening new vistas to the world. The techne of science and the raw Dionysian energy of art together would render obsolete both theology—that caked residue under the toilet bowl of metaphysics—and the equally tendentious religiosity of Positivism. Whether Nietzsche envisioned specific technologies adapted by one and made suitable for the other, or more generally a reinforced mindset we cannot say. After all, art and science, from Euclid to Catherine Wagner, have always reacted with each other to produce a permanent art. Perhaps he meant a form of rational empiricism forged not by observation but by actualization. The elasticity of the aesthetic imagination and the psycho-social laboratory of the real world. Not a work about the thing, but the thing it itself. Not meta- but infra-. Direct actions that yield direct explanations, not more questions. What comes to mind is Pasolini’s very real examination of his own sadism in Salo. Harry Harlow and his rhesus monkeys, and the photographs he left for us. Otto Mühl and Günter Brus, certainly. Mishima’s Gnostic sayonara? Jamie Gillis? That very dangerous eclipsing of the aesthetics of fantasies and the mechanics of reality. Art which argues with itself on stage, celluloid and canvas without the safety nets of verisimilitude and didacticism, without specific need for the reactions of an audience entertained.

In spite of the possibilities, very little Conceptual and Process-based art manages to go beyond advertisement. It’s hard to imagine an artist less touched by her own exercises than Karen Finley. It’s yourself who needs convincing, not Jesse Helms or anyone else, and I think this is why art brut is routinely thought of as synonymous with artistic purity. It is also why John Duncan is one of the least understood artists of our time. Though his work is made for contact with other humans, the term ‘audience’ hardly seems appropriate. He has worked with a variety of media—direct action, film, painting, bookmaking, sound art, and most recently, dance. It is reasonable to wonder how an artist can follow a subject through so many formats without losing hope or resorting to dilettantish tactics. But in spite of what you may have read, he is interested neither in provocation nor shock, or transgression per se, but in learning—in tapping into the inner self and waking up; to, as he says, ‘discover everything I can about what it is to be alive.

Duncan arrived in Los Angeles at a peculiar time in its cultural history: post-Watts, pre-Lowbrow; post-Manson, pre-Helter Skelter; post-Walter Hopps, pre-Black Flag. At CalArts, he studied painting, focusing on color psychology and 2D compositional geometry. After meeting Allan Kaprow, who introduced him to the Aktionists, and to the music of Mauricio Kagel, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros, among others[1], he abandoned painting and never looked back. The happenings and performances he began staging in 1975 have become legendary for their effects on participants. And yet Duncan does not consider his work communicative in the traditional sense, but as shared experience. His early works (e.g., Scare, For Women Only, Move Forward), participants were necessarily trapped in situations and forced to cope; these days they are free to leave at any time, but those who choose to stay accept the ramifications of their curiosity and go home knowing some part of them wanted to remain. The ‘audiences’ for Duncan’s early works were often quite unaware of their status as such, being city bus riders, unwitting acquaintances, or people who accidentally tuned into one of his pirate radio broadcasts. In Scare (Los Angeles, 1976), Duncan knocked on the doors of people he knew at night, disguised; when they answered he fired a gun loaded with blanks into their faces and disappeared. ‘Participants’ in Scare were thereby forced to experience the extremes of terror of death approaching, followed by anger, relief, and possibly fascination when the panic was over.

In Bus Ride (Los Angeles, 1976), Duncan introduced a small amount of substance with an odor similar to vaginal secretions during orgasm into the ventilation system of the city bus he drove. The idea was purely Reichian: to see whether or not the idea that repressed sexual energy gives way to aggression. Apparently so. A normally passive commuter kicked a pregnant woman off of her seat in order to put up his feet. This caused a fight among the other passengers, half of whom sided with the commuter. Again, later, a group of kids coming home from a school that specialized in training etiquette, normally introverted and quiet, attacked each other and tore up the bus.

In For Women Only (Los Angeles, 1979), an audience of women were shown pornographic collage and then invited to enter a separate room, where they could abuse Duncan sexually. The sexual nature of some of his early works (Every Woman, For Women Only, Blind Date, etc.) purportedly refract what Duncan refers to as his repressive Presbyterian upbringing in Kansas, in which misery, sensual denial, and punishment were predicate.

Participants in Move Forward (Tokyo, 1984) entered a completely dark concrete room filled with high-volume sound for twenty minutes. After ten minutes, a film collage of pornography, nuclear explosions, and Hiroshima victims, was projected in slow motion onto a paper screen that divided the room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. At the conclusion, Duncan set alight the screen and sprayed the embers into the audience with a fire extinguisher.

Even his recent performance work, The Seed at Zero (Bologna, 2010), a collaboration with choreographer Melissa Pasut in which diverse audio and visual elements are juxtaposed, demonstrates this most important motif of Duncan’s work: the placement of people into a context in which they can share in the stress and elation of self-discovery, without a prescribed lesson or set of reactions; and in which they can alter perceptions by confronting fears of the unknown and new. As Duncan has said, ‘If you repress something, it always becomes heavier, and in the end, it controls you. The more you ask questions, the freer you are.

The influence of Allan Kaprow, Grotowski’s Poor Theater, and the transgressive violence of the Aktonists are very much alive in Duncan’s early events. In the late 1970s he began orbiting the periphery of the Los Angeles Free Music Society, with some of whose members he collaborated on radio work. In 1978 he released three cassettes on his own AQM label, and in 1979 he appeared on the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art’s seminal 1979 compilation Sound. Also in 1979, he released his first LP, Organic, and distributed it with help from the LAFMS. These early recordings, prior to his departure from Los Angeles, are very much in the inventive spirit of the LAFMS, created with a variety of then-unconventional instruments such as reel-to-reel or cassette recorders, water, and found sounds. The association with premier experimentalists and his understanding of the physics and psychology of color to sound art eventually led him to work with that most surreal and unpredictable of instruments, the shortwave radio, whose time signals, utility communication, and Numbers Stations are refracted through solar, electric, and atmospheric interferences.

Duncan cross-pollenated the actualization of his performances with his audio research in the form of pirate radio broadcasts entitled Close Radio. In 1977 he, along with Michael Le Donne-Bhennet, Tom Recchion, and Paul McCarthy, recorded Station Event, a mix of improvised percussion and woodwinds and live call-ins from KPFK listeners. In 1980, he recorded one of the more haunting pieces of his early career, ‘Happy Homes.’ For this, he phoned Dr. Toni Grant, a call-in psychologist broadcasting on KABC, Los Angeles and described two incidents he experienced as a public bus driver in South Central Los Angeles: ‘The first time,’ he says, ‘two people got on the bus and seemed to be dragging a sack of dirty laundry that they put under the seat. After awhile I saw there was a six-month-old baby inside it, with its eyes bruised shut. I stopped the bus and called the police. When they arrived on the scene they told me they couldn’t do anything because they hadn’t seen a crime committed. Another time, a woman got on with a nine year old girl who had open sores covering her arms and legs, the woman sitting next to the girl telling her, “You’re evil!” I just drove, I didn’t do anything. Later on I called the psychologist to say how much it bothered me that I couldn’t react anymore.’ In 2007, the Close Radio archive was donated to the Getty.

In May of 1980, Duncan performed what would be the most controversial and life-changing artistic act of his career, Blind Date, in which he travelled to Tijuana to purchase a female corpse, with which he had sex. Six weeks later (the minimum waiting period) he had a vasectomy so that ‘the last potent seed I had was spent in a cadaver.’ Blind Date was ‘performed in order to torture myself, physically and psychically … There was nothing erotic about it, there was no pleasure involved … it was not act of self-indulgence … I felt that I had failed at love and decided to torture myself, to punish myself as much as I possibly could. I had this focused determination to suffer.’ Driving home he found he was unable to weep, he was beyond weeping. After the vasectomy, Duncan arranged for a public listening to a tape recording he had made of Blind Date, during which he explained he ‘wanted to show what can happen to men that are trained to ignore their emotions’ and that the recording was made ‘to render any further self-torture of this kind, especially psychic self-torture, unnecessary for anyone to perform as a creative act.’ Aside from the immense risk to his mental and physical health, with Blind Date Duncan risked his artistic reputation. And indeed, the feminist network in Los Angeles saw to it his work was informally banned there, and made him a pariah. Even his closest friends turned against him.

Blind Date and its aftermath became, for Duncan, an epochal event. Besides galvanizing his departure from the USA, it inspired him ‘to really go profoundly into my work and into my art, and into what it is to be alive. The moral issues are a distraction. Some people need these issues in order to justify this sense of outrage they have. It keeps them from really looking at themselves. Some people need that. Some people need that protection from themselves.’

But like a heavy chain, Blind Date has follows Duncan everywhere he has gone.[2] Pelted by cancelled performances and friendships, threats to send him to prison, and predictable feminist outrage, Duncan crossed the Pacific to live and work for six years in Tokyo, where reception to his work was much more sincere and non-judgmental. In Tokyo, he worked with pornographer Nakagawa Noriaki on a series of commercial adult videos. Nakagawa chose the cast and crew, and Duncan directed and edited with state-of-the-art equipment. Under Duncan’s direction, female performers were typically given strong, self-assured, dominant characters to play—something unknown in Japanese adult cinema. Nakagawa also gave Duncan the freedom to compose the soundtrack to the films, which he created with the shortwave—something doubly anathema to Japanese pornographic film audiences. Once the videos were released, Duncan rented them as a consumer and re-assembled the material, adding in his own found video material, and broadcast them on Japan’s TVC 1 pirate television with portable transmitters built by Duncan himself. He did so illegally from apartment block roofs in central Tokyo and allegedly from an abandoned US Army hospital near Sagamihara, for only a few minutes at a time to evade the police. He has yet to meet anyone who actually saw a broadcast. These video collages were released on Duncan’s AQM label on VHS and are now very scarce, as are the soundtracks released separately on cassettes under the pseudonym CV Massage.

In contrast to his Los Angeles-period works, which were, Duncan claims, all fundamentally about the Los Angeles social landscape and Duncan’s strict Midwestern Presbyterian childhood, in Japan he began reaping the benefits of the Blind Date experience combined with isolation in a foreign land. His interest in revealing what is kept hidden and secret both by a society and by the physical limits of the body found unlimited contact points in Tokyo, as did opportunities to explore how truth can be revealed by experience—a subject very much in the tradition of Bataille and Artaud. All this finally came to a boil in 1984 with the release of his magnificent LP, Riot, about which he said, ‘I decided to try to make a kind of music that was impossible to listen to, pure noise, that had a structure but seemed to be entirely without one: this is how RIOT was realized, before the Japanese noise scene developed.’ In spite of his efforts to create something unlistenable, Riot is subtle and even in its total assault, as is its inspiration: the contrast of subtlety and overload of life in urban Japan.

Duncan continued creating assaultive music and performances for another solid decade, and periodically thereafter. With his move in 1988 from Japan to Amsterdam, where he remained eight years before moving again to his current home in Italy, his work turned toward what you might call inplorations of sound phenomena. More elaborate and less nihilistic, and no less energetic and imaginative in its address of a broader range of aspects of our inner experience, the work had matured. There is also a turn toward an understanding of sound as a physical thing to be used in self-confrontation. The influence of the Aktionists, however essential to Duncan’s early artistic development, grew less relevant, and a sort of transcendentalism grew in its place. In describing the last three decades of his sound art, since his pioneering shortwave work, he says he feels he is an equal contributor among many in the process of creation; sometimes he doesn’t know ‘how certain elements have become part of the sound.’ A step beyond the aleatory processes mapped by Cage, he found the process of creation was allowing the work to dictate the next move to him, and through this dialogue come to access something otherwise hidden.

In 1996, one of the most exhaustively constructed moments in all of sound art appeared as Duncan’s collaboration with Max Springer entitled The Crackling, a nine piece serial of recordings from the particle accelerator at SLAC at Stanford. Duncan placed microphones into the tubes of the 120 Hz electron drivers along the accelerator itself, into a liquid nitrogen exhaust vent, in the center of the collision chamber hall, at various points of the cryogenic system, and around the collision chamber itself. He and Springer then spent a year and a half (including ten consecutive non-stop days) mixing the tracks. Duncan’s interest in SLAC and its operations lay in its contradictions: this unimaginably massive and complex architecture, which Duncan describes as a ‘city of the dead’ and the infinitesimally small simplicity of its charge: the splitting of single electrons; microtones and infinite space; and the forces of which are lethal to human life and yet aimed at reaching the floor of our very existence. The thickness of the results are, as Daniela Cascella describes, ‘a pursuit to the threshold of perception.’ In many ways, The Crackling is a perfected version of several pieces that have served as studies for it, such as “The Immense Room” on Klaar (1991). Duncan’s and Springer’s expression of the vastness of the space and the processes of the reactor in condensed time is a work for the ages.

For The Keening Towers, which debuted in 2003 at the Second Gothenburg Biennial, Duncan treated recordings of the San Pietro Elementary School Choir, transforming them into a work of monumental audio-architectural art—on the subject of infant abuse. The towers themselves stood twenty-four meters high, each fitted with two speakers, looked down upon the Gothenberg City Art Museum and broadcast, continuously for 90 days, an unanchored chattering, breathing, and screaming voices, crawling all over a pile of mulching notes and an overwhelming volume left listeners stunned in place.

Most recently, Duncan has collaborated with Michael Esposito and Z’ev, the former of whom is known for his audio explorations of psychic and paranormal phenomena, to create a limited edition LP of electronic voice phenomena recordings entitled There Must Be A Way Across This River / The Abject. Also recently, several of his early works, JOHN DUNCAN 1st Recordings 1978-85unavailable and coveted for decades, have been rereleased as vinyl box-sets by Frank Maier’s Vinyl-on-Demand label.

For an artist so concerned with existential unveiling, and so varied in his approaches to subjects, the way to the truth cannot rely on science alone, or the humanities alone. He prefers to ask and answer his questions outside of categories belonging to any system. John Duncan’s career from the first events to the most recent has been predicated on self-exploration, never on sensationalism. The difference between knowledge and truth is therefore paramount, for, as he says, ‘knowledge is a network of interpretations, opinions and decisions, passed on from one to another to another. Truth is something you become aware of through your own experiences, by living them, examining and questioning them. A belief system can easily become a substitute for this, or an excuse to deny the existence of some experiences you may have that the system fails to explain.’ Though the scientific method and its steps toward verifiability are so entrenched in social life the world round, and its rituals have become indistinguishable from that of religious faith, there is and always shall be a post-Positivist realm well out of reach of our advances, and yet right before our very eyes.



[1] He had already discovered Jacques Lasry’s monumental Chronophagie at the Wichita Public Library.

[2] For example, in 2001, he was awarded the prestigious International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) residency, on the recommendation of Swedish sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff. Two months into the residency, the IASPIS suddenly revoked it, having learned about Blind Date. After a short legal battle (with the pro bono help of Greenpeace lawyer Jan Palmblad), Duncan completed the residency and received cash compensation from IASPIS well in excess of the residency’s contractual terms.


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